New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: music

Somber Arvo Part Choral and Orchestral Music for Somber Times

Whether Russian orchestras actually play Shostakovich better, or French organists are best suited to perform the work of Louis Vierne, are debatable questions. What was indisputable last night was how vastly attuned the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra were to their countryman Arvo Part’s somber, rapturous mysticism. It’s impossible to think of a more apt program for a New York series called Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.

The concert was a confluence of unlikely serendipities. Beyond the rare opportunity to witness these two legendary ensembles together on American soil, the material on the bill was what many consider to be peak-era Part. Everything dated from1990 and later, with one of the arrangements a 2018 North American premiere. Better yet, the composer himself had suggested the inclusion of his soberly crescendoing, cell-like 2006 string orchestra piece, Fur Lennart in Memoria.

On a macro level, the performance was as meticulously serious as its overall gloom was pervasive and relentless. In particular, conductor Tonu Kaljuste made masterful use of the innumerable spaces that punctuated these works, leting the natural reverb of the high-ceilinged Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola resonate as profoundly as the music itself.

The ensembles only missed the big American costume-party holiday by a couple of weeks. To be fair, the only point where the sound reached fullscale horror was in the stalking pulse, gothic chromatics and brief series of muted, shrieking motives in the concluding suite, Adam’s Lament. The message, here as elsewhere, seemed to be that no human alone should have to bear the burden of being cast out of paradise, all alone in a hostile world.

The rest of the program was every bit as troubled and serious. Even celeste player Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann’s graceful comet-trail phrases and bittersweet starriness tended to simply mingle with the otherwise rather stygian, even creepy tones of Salve Regina. Mysterious bass drones anchored alternately moody and robust accents and call-and-response from the choir throughout an understatedly dynamic take of Part’s Berliner Messe, the oldest piece they performed. The string orchestra brought a gorgeous, Gorecki-like, hypnotically circling ambience to Silouan’s Song, rising to a windswept ethereality. And the Prayer, from Part’s Kanon Pokajanen suite, perfectly synopsized the concert’s slow, steady, spacious majesty, artfully developed variations on simple, emphatic phrases and lustrous contrast between highs and lows from both the singers and the strings.

The two ensembles are currently on US tour; the next stop is Nov 14 at 7:30 PM at Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St. in Stanford, California; you can get in for $32, less if you’re a student. After more lighthearted holiday fare next month, Sacred Music in a Sacred Space’s programming keeps the intensity high with a performance by longtime St. Ignatius organist Renee-Anne Louprette with uilleann piper Ivan Goff on Jan 20 at 3 PM; tix are $25.

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No-No Boy Bring Their Fascinating, Harrowing, Catchy Songs of Japanese-American Incarceration to Lincoln Center

In one of the more ugly chapters in American history, beginning in 1942 almost 130,000 Japanese-Americans were seized without trial and subsequently imprisoned in a total of ten concentration camps, mostly in the western states. Most of those individuals were American citizens. Virtually all of them, instructed to leave their homes behind with only what they could carry with them, would spend the entirety of World War II imprisoned.

The “no-no boys,” as concentration camp staff first called them, refused to swear allegiance to the United States or serve in the military, which makes sense considering that virtually all of these men had family and relatives were were imprisoned along with them. With their debut album, 1942 – streaming at Bandcamp – elegantly tuneful rock band No-No Boy bring the chilling, powerfully relevant history of that era to life. They’re playing the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. this Thurs, Nov 15 at 7:30 PM. The show is free, but the earlier you get there the better because the venue frequently sells out.

Frontman/guitarist Julian Saporiti harmonizes with singer Erin Aoyama in the album’s shimmering, Elliott Smith-tinged opening track, Pacific Fog, Tessa Sacramone’s plaintive violin soaring overhead. Saporiti’s narrative allusively references John Okada’s hauting1957 novel, also titled No-No Boy.

This album goes beyond Japanese-American incarceration to focus on similarly relevant history. Case in point: Boat People, a gently sweeping, hypnotic ballad that juxtaposes the story of a mid-70s Vietnamese doctor who resettled in Montreal, alongside a more detailed, harrowing account of current-day refugees:

Fourteen hours by car, cargo trucks and cabs
Just to shake the cops, Mom had to stay back
A Chinese safe house and covered tracks…

The floor of the Pacific is littered with Asian bones.

The stories lighten but are no less minutely detailed in Han Shan & Helen Keller: Cold Mountain – an indelibly tense wintertime Boston college-crowd scenario – and then Disposable Youth, a wry afternoon party pickup scenario. By contrast, Lam Thi Dep – a John Lennon-esque anthem named after a female Viet Cong soldier captured in a famous Vietnam War photo – has the most intertwined of all the stories here. Saporiti’s savagely sardonic references reach beyond the fact that many first-generation Vietnamese-Americans voted Republican, to a hilarious account of knee-jerk political correctness in academia.

Instructions to All Persons refers to the FDR edict to round up Japanese-Americans on the west coast; Saporiti and Ayoyama sing in the voice of a survivor of the camps, reflecting on their prisoner friends’ quiet defiance and attempts to maintain some kind of normalcy there.

Saporiti draws his inspiration for Ogie/Naoko, a charming ukulele waltz, from Melody Miyamoto Walters’ book In Love and War: The World War II Love Letters of a Nisei Couple, adding sobering context to an otherwise schmaltzy story. The sweeping parlor pop ballad Heart Mountain – named for the camp where Ayoyama’s grandmother was imprisoned – is another waltz, Saporiti’s narrator hopeful that someday he can consummate a clandestine romance and rebuild his life as a college professor.

Two Candles In the Dark, arguably the album’s strongest song, is perhaps ironically its most Americana-flavored one. Saporiti gives voice to an irrepressible rulebreaker looking to get over despite her circumstances:

Pretty outlaw call a quarter past, light knuckles on a barrack door
She got a brother down in Topaz, I saw that name once in a jewelry store
Wind around past the skaters and pond, looking for a cut in the wire
She’s got a key to the cellar door,
I don’t ask questions, man, just stand there inspired

Dragon Park, the album’s most stoically angry song, traces images from Saporiti’s own Tennessee childhood as a Vietnamese-American fighting off racist idiots:

I know that Southern Stare
Not just back home but everywhere

The album ends with its most Asian folk-inflected tune, Little Saigon, lost in a reverie of a place to indulge in a heritage including but not limited to Vietnamese psychedelic rock and the dan bau, a magical, warp-toned stringed instrument. At its best, Saporiti’s tunesmithing ranks with any of the real visionaries of this era: Elvis Costello, Hannah Fairchild and Rachelle Garniez. You’ll see on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

What a Thrill: Tan Dun Conducts Tan Dun at Lincoln Center

That this past evening’s Lincoln Center performance of Tan Dun’s Cello Concerto wasn’t upstaged by the Orchestra Now‘s colorful, majestically dynamic, cinematic version of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome speaks equally to the quality of the composition and the musicians playing it. Having a composer on the podium isn’t necessarily a good idea, since many lack the ability to communicate exactly what they want in a split-second. But Tan Dun was confident and assured, building a vigorous repartee with the ensemble throughout a bill that reflected the diverse and often perverse challenges that even the most seasoned players can be forced to take in stride.

The Cello Concerto is one of four, each written for a specific soloist, utilizing the same orchestral backdrop. This one is a real showstopper, a frequently microtonal work (especially at the end) that required all sorts of daunting extended technique not only from cellist Jing Zhao but the entire orchestra. The Asian influence was most strongly evident throughout a long series of strangely cantabile glissandos, and swoops and dives, front and center in bright stereo from various sections and soloists, percussion included. From a vast, overcast, enveloping slow build, through thickets of agitation, thorny pizzicato and more than one interlude that was essentially cello metal, the group seemed to be having a blast with it. Even the two trick codas as the end were as seamless as trick codas can be.

The other Tan Dun piece on the bill, his Passaglia, is one in the most formal sense of the word: varations on a simple, catchy bass figure. It’s an etude, an opportunity for young musicians not only to take turns in brief, emphatic solos, but also to tackle the many unusual challenges (many would say indignities) that orchestral musicians these days are called on to pull off. In this case, that included singing n unison, chanting, stomping or clapping out a beat…and using their phones. This deep-jungle theme and permutations briefly employs a sample of birdsong which the audience were also encouraged to download and play on cue. As expected, that interlude was rather ragged and took twice as long as the composer had intended. Even so, Tan Dun’s relentless, puckish sense of humor and peek-a-boo motives won everyone over.

Respighi’s tour of Roman activity beneath and around the conifers was as vivid as it possibly could have been, enhanced by the composer’s original instructions to position brass above and to the side. Introducing the piece, violinist Diego Gabete-Rodriguez reminded that Respighi had studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, which came through mightily in the clarity of individual voices over fluttering and then lush strings, delicate accents popping up everywhere when least expected. The kids playing a frenetic game of hide-and-seek in the Villa Borghese; the somber catacomb milieu of the second movement; the glistening nocturne of the third; the concluding ominous buildup to what seems like inevitable war (remember, this was written under the Mussolini regime); and final triumphant scene were each in sharp focus.

The orchestra opened with Smetana’s The Moldau, which, paired alongside Tan Dun’s nonstop excitement seemed tired and dated. The musical equivalent of a first-class minor-league team, the Orchestra Now’s mission is to give up-and-coming players a chance to show off their stuff in the real-live situations that they will undoubtedly encounter as professional orchestral musicians. The Czech composer’s water music is a perennially popular curtain-riser, one unfortunately too often paired with a piece as jarringly different as the rest of this bill was. To be able to leap that stylistic chasm could mean a thumbs-up from a hiring committee; in this case, the group seemed to be holding their energy, and emotional commitment, in reserve for the fireworks afterward.

The Orchestra Now’s next Manhattan concert is Nov 18 at 2 PM at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with works by Chopin and Berlioz; you can get in for $30.

Single of the Day 11/11/18 – Lush, Majestic, Searingly Lyrical Janglerock

Noctorum – the duo of Marty Willson-Piper, this era’s greatest twelve-string guitarist and longtime member of the Church – with longtime collaborator Dare Mason – capture an indelible London moment with Piccadilly Circus in the Rain (via Soundcloud). The way they pivot out of very subtle satire to withering realism will rip your face off. Another contender for best song of 2018.

Single of the Day 11/10/18 – Full Frontal Ferocity

Arguably the loudest band ever to play the sedate Rockwood Music Hall, Hannah vs. the Many are New York’s best power trio. They’re at the Way Station at 10 tonight, a place where they actually could drown out the crowd of yuppie puppies at the bar. Check out their latest rad, theatrical single, Face Front (via youtube) frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s lyrical torch job on an ex she ran into when least expected/desired. Don’t ever mess with a songwriter – this could happen to you.

Single of the Day 11/9/18 – A Scathing Soul Smash

Singer/multi-instrumentalist Alice Lee has been one of the brightest lights to emerge from the New York scene in recent years, a jazz singer at heart with deep soul roots but also an edgy experimental side. Much of her work could be the missing link between Nina Simone and Fiona Apple. This latest single, Me Too, (via youtube) nails a moment, and a movement: it could be the best song of the year.

Say it had it coming and I will own your game
Bury me standing and you will know my name

Single of the Day 11/8/18 – Pure Punk Theatre of Cruelty

Punk rock, in its original undiluted form, is supposed to be funny, right? And 80% of humor is based on cruelty. Super American‘s Chris From Walmart (via  youtube) is 2 minutes 25 seconds worth of payback as vicious as it gets. “You deserve a girl who actually texts you back sometime.” 

Ouch.

Single of the Day 11/7/18 – Fearless Female-Fronted Political Punk Rock

The 50 Ft. Furies are as politically spot-on and cynically funny as they are catchy. This all-female punk band speak truth to power with a better sense of humor than just about anybody out there. The sardonically titled Oscar namechecks the Stanford Rapist, Brock Turner, among other villains. Big up to guitarslinger Debra Devi for the heads-up about this one.

Single of the Day 11/6/18 – Lynchian Psychedelia

Not quite sure what dark songbird Ezza Rose’s American Man, a surreal mashup of Lynchian femme fatale waltz and slow Dream Syndicate psychedelia (via soundcloud), is all about, but it’s hard to turn away from 

Practical Strategies For Introducing Audiences to New Composers of Serious Music

The panel discussion this past evening at Lincoln Center was less a skull session about how to fix the crisis of diminishing audiences at concerts of serious music and more about how two of the most colorful individuals in the business are tackling it. The New York Philharmonic‘s Isaac Thompson, who moderated, wisely picked the orchestra’s first-ever Creative Partner, Nadia Sirota, along with her International Contemporary Ensemble bassoonist pal Rebekah Heller, then let the two of them chew the scenery. The result was refreshingly optimistic, all the more so for being grounded in the grim reality of experience and history.

Both approach the situation from a programming rather than audience perspective – one that goes completely against the grain of conventional corporate strategy. These days we’re told to mine data to the nth degree, then bombard those attached to that data with lures and incentives to buy more and more of what the numbers say they already like. In so doing, you take absolutely no chances.

But as Heller put it, “Sometimes the riskiest thing you can do is also the safest.” She was referring to Ashley Fure’s Filament, which the Philharmonic chose to open their season this year. Heller played that piece from a position in the audience. Unorthodox spatial configurations of musicians are old hat in the avant garde, and there’s plenty of mainstream precedent – Fiddler on the Roof, anyone? – yet have been quite the exception in this particular milieu. Was this a one-off? Far from it, Heller vigorously asserted.

“I didn’t get called by the New York Philharmonic because I’m an amazing bassoonist,” she demurred. “I got the call because I’m part of this community with Ashley. This is a generation of community-building, with and for each other, and giving back to the field,” she explained. What Heller could have said but didn’t is that she’s actually a very dynamic bassoonist, a disciple of  Pauline Oliveros with a flair for the unusual. Her Dark and Stormy project with Adrian Morejon might be the only group in history to have played the entire extant repertoire for bassoon duo.

Sirota enthusiastically affirmed Heller’s communitarian philosophy. “New York is this incredible farm team of nineteen and twenty-year-old musicians just dying to play new music. It wasn’t always that way,” she reminded soberly. “In twenty or thirty years I hope that audiences for this will have octupled,” she enthused.

The Juilliard-trained violist and founder of indie classical chamber ensemble yMusic speaks from experience. You can see the wheels turning at the Phiilharmonic: it’s impossible to think of a more likable ambassador for new composers. With her rapidfire wit and livewire enthusiasm, she earned the position after three years running arguably the best new music podcast out there, Meet the Composer. Her agenda: to bring that passion – along with a considerable following – to a new series of Sunday afternoon concerts in the comfortable amphitheatre sonics of the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. There’s also the late-night Kaplan Penthouse Nightcap series of intimate performances featuring composers whose work is on the bill in the hall downstairs – and where you can actually meet them.

She’s also booked her first Young People’s Concert for March 2 of next year, pairing Beethoven with Andrew Norman. She took her cue for the afternoon’s video game theme from a comment by Norman comparing motivic development in Beethoven with the challenges of increasingly complex gaming levels.

Heller is one of several ICE musicians do double duty as administrator and programmer. The group’s ICE Lab program, a workshop for emerging composers, springboarded her connection to Fure. And the long-running, free OpeniCE series – the latest of which are happening this week through Nov 8 at the New York Library for the Performing Arts – continues to offer exciting, eclectic programming accessible to everyone.

The elephant not in the room was the Philharmonic’s new Music Director, Jaap van Zweden. “He is so game!” Heller asserted. “He made his name on these big Germanic pieces but that’ s not the only thing he likes or is good at,” pointing to his advocacy for new composers with the Dallas Symphony. “So with this orchestra, he gets to be this amazing explorer with them.” It will be interesting to see how far he can take that: Alan Gilbert’s adventurous and often absolutely delightful Contact! series, dedicated to emerging composers, got off to a smashingly good start but stalled out as the venues got smaller and smaller while ticket prices went up.

In the Q&A afterward, one audience member asked why the Philharmonic doesn’t open every performance with a new work. Neither SIrota nor Heller acknowledged that they used to do that all the time. Half the audience would leave at the intermission, dejected, while the other half would show up then for the big Germanic piece. Instead, the two women simply acknowledged that new music belongs on the program wherever it makes sense to put it: in the middle of the bill wouldn’t be a bad idea. As musicians, Sirota and Heller know that better than anyone. We’ve come a long way since the days when, as Heller explained it, the twelve-tone camp and the neoromantics were duking out over which was preferable: ”Music that was intelligent but emotionally lacking, or emotional but stupid.”

The Philharmonic’s next performances are Nov 7-8 at 7:30 PM and Nov 9 at 8 PM with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony plus two works by Schubert: the Fifth Symphony and a “joyous, charming mini-cantata,” featuring Principal Clarinet Anthony McGill and soprano Miah Persson. You can get in for $34.